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Seeing Gardens Through an Artist's Eyes
updated: Oct 26, 2013, 1:00 PM
By Billy Goodnick
Have you ever wished you could slip inside an artist's brain and perceive the world the way they do?
That's what I'm doing this week with the help of Nicole Strasburg (nicolestrasburg.com), a gifted Santa Barbara fine
artist who draws her inspiration from the natural world. I was familiar with - and lusted for - Nicole's
work since seeing her sublime paintings at Sullivan Goss
gallery years ago.
(Photo credit: Roe Anne White)
What pulled me into Nicole's work was her way of stripping the complexity of natural scenes - tidal
flows, the tawny grasses that cover our hillsides during the dry season, or a fog bank oozing across the
channel - and transforming them into impressionistic, contemporary images that linger in my mind.
Nicole's "New Terrain" show is on display at Sullivan Goss and will be there through December 1. Just do
it! (View the 3-minute
So imagine when I got a call from her a few years back asking if I could help with her garden. I jumped
at the chance, imagining what it would be like collaborating with a client who possessed a highly
sophisticated sense of composition, color, form and light. I mean, she studied in freakin' PARIS, for
god's sake!!! (not Paris, Texas; the one where mimes come from) Frequently in my design work I catch
myself running a self-edited internal dialog, imagining my client saying "I'm not so sure about putting
those plants together." Working with Nicole, it was all about pulling out the stops and pushing the
But back to seeing the world through another's eyes. The same way a connoisseur can appreciate wine
at levels of complexity that escape my palate, when I look at a garden, I perceive it through the eyes of a
landscape architect and teacher. But what does a fine artist see?
I sent Nicole a few dozen photos of individual plants, as well as vignettes of multi-plant compositions,
and asked her to share with us how she would think about each image if she were going to paint it. As I
read her reply, I was giddy as she applied concepts and vocabulary that would never have entered my
mind. I hope you gain similar insights that will help you create your own ideal garden and also find an
expanded way of describing the visual world.
"In this image the most obvious first impression is the spectacular color; the warms juxtaposed with the
cool of the greens and the intermediary red violet.
"When looking at flowers, of course I would respond first to the hot, bright colors of these "pokers". I
would be drawn in by their unusual shape, then by the variation of the color within each blossom, the
warm ombré going from the oranges and reds to the gold as the flower opens and then lighter
"I think one of the things often overlooked is the background - what is behind these unusual blossoms.
The myriad shades of cool offset the warm making the color of the Kniphofia that much more striking.
"All colors in this composition are made up of secondary colors on the color wheel (orange, green,
violet) which adds to their vibrancy when placed next to each other. Additionally, the out-of-focus
background increases the excitement and attention to the interesting architecture of the blossoms the
artists wants us to be examining. Things in sharper focus come forward, whereas things out of focus
will recede (art composition 101). Layer that with the balance of secondary colors and you have a very
"This image is all about value and form: value equaling the lights and darks of color,
and form being all about the shapes of the plants and their textures.
"Often when I'm approaching a painting that is tonal - referring to subjects that are within a limited
color scheme - I will print a black and white image to help identify the focal point for a composition. In
this image it would be the dark under grasses of the Phormiums that will shape the composition and
punch the lively bottle brush and fescue to the front and the lightness of the Phormium on the left will
bring your eye along its stems, back into the picture, leading you into the center for another look.
"Green has the most variation in painting. There are more greens than any other color (or so I've read).
From my own experience, I know that a landscape can become very dull quickly without the right variety
of texture, line, color and shape.
"This composition has a striking mix of blue-green (fescue) lemony yellow green (striped Phormium),
rich auburn and slate-green (dark Phormium) and a great mix of greens in the bottlebrush accented by
the red bloom. It is the contrast of the two varieties of Phormium that give life to this composition and
the graceful bend of the leaves that keep the picture plane active, moving the eye from green to green,
light to dark and entwining the foreground foliage."
In her e-mail, Nicole wrote, "I had to sneak in one of my favorites from the garden you designed for us,
Billy!" Who am I to censor her?
"The end of August is one of the best times in our ‘just filled out' back garden. It is rich in texture and
color, an exciting array of lacey and soft grasses intertwined with large Japanese anemones bursting
with white blossoms. The Chinese fountain grass is echoed with a tall Miscanthus grass behind, which
has firework stems reaching toward the rich rusty colors of the red-leaf Japanese maple. In the
background there is a hint of the grey-blue Santolina and the soft edges of the Breath of Heaven shrubs.
Only a hint of the wall with brick and wood detail show, bouncing back the range of color in the garden.
"To me this composition is everything from a riot to a soft purr. The dark rusty branches of the tree in
the upper right corner reach over and caress the blooms of the Miscanthus and lead your eye around
the picture plane until you bump into the heads of the yet-to-open anemone. These gangly stalks
driving downward (or upward whichever way you are being lead) to the dark green, architectonic shapes
of the sturdy leaves, after which you fall softly into the fountain grass, with their pillowy flowering
"It is a sublime combination of light and dark, hard and soft, warm and cool; such variety of color and
texture that make me want to wax rhapsodic or just smile excessively. It is a reason to pick up a
paintbrush when one feels this way."
[BG jumping in here… I am printing out this next paragraph and taping it up over my drafting board.]
"A really good composition has three viewing points. The first: from a distance, that it has something
enigmatic that makes the viewer want to come closer. The second: middle distance, that the
composition holds your attention, asks you to look even closer. Lastly: Up close and personal, nose to
nose, that there is even something exciting on the surface when the entire composition is blurred, that
the tiny details are still exciting.
"I think Billy accomplished this in the design of our garden. There isn't a day that I don't find something
really extraordinary when looking at the combinations of the colors and textures, the plant choices and
the delicate intertwining of the plants as they mature, grow together and have interesting conversations
about where they live."
Dear Nicole: Thank you for sharing your revelatory insights with me and my readers, and for letting me
play with you in your garden. Smooches!
Billy Goodnick is a nice guy who knows a lot about plants and garden stuff.
Looking for design ideas and cool plants? Subscribe to Billy's e-mail newsletter by dropping him a line at
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